Behind the Scenes at the Vatican

Paul Elie, the author of "The Year of Two Popes," talks about Ratzinger's rise and his own extraordinary experiences researching the story

During the two weeks following the death of Pope John Paul II last April, the news media buzzed with the names of possible successors. Many speculated that a cardinal from Latin America might be a likely choice—or perhaps a candidate from Africa. Stories about the political machinations at work inside the conclave abounded. To some, who keep a close watch on the Vatican, however, it came as little surprise when, on April 19, a Chilean cardinal announced from a balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square that the German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would be the 265th pope.

The election of Ratzinger—a man who had been appointed by John Paul to head the Congregation of the Doctrine of the faith almost twenty-five years earlier—was greeted with mixed emotions the world over. While many conservative Catholics applauded the election, progressive Catholics and non-Catholics alike voiced concern that Ratzinger's record of opposition on such issues as abortion, liberation theology, homosexuality, and female clergy would prevent the Church from keeping pace with the times. Some commentators also expressed wonder at how a figure so notorious for his rigidity (his nicknames, after all, include "Cardinal 'No'" and "The Inquisitor") had managed to seize control of the Apostolic Palace.

Once the news of Ratzinger's selection had settled in, the chatter subsided, and the media, who had flocked to Rome in droves, cleared out.

But not Paul Elie.

Like many other reporters, Elie, a writer and a senior editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, had hastened to Rome upon the news of John Paul's death. But unlike most others, he stayed on for several months, speaking at length with cardinals and curial officials at the Vatican about John Paul and Ratzinger. Owing in part to his reputation as a prominent American writer on Catholic issues, these Vatican insiders—many of whom had known or been acquainted with both John Paul and Ratzinger for years—opened up to him, sharing their personal stories.

The considerable stretch of time Elie was able to devote to his research, and the remarkable access he was given to those in the know enabled him to write "The Year of Two Popes"—an in-depth piece of reporting that offers insight into everything from Ratzinger's character, to his ascent within the Church, to the import of his papacy. The article appears as the Atlantic's cover story for the January/February issue. Elie spoke with me about it by telephone on November 22 and 30.

Elie's work has appeared in a number of publications including Commonweal, The New Republic, and The New York Times. His book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (2003), a group portrait of Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day, was the recipient of a PEN/Martha Albrand Prize, the Beliefnet Book of the Year award, and a Catholic Press Association award. His previous piece for The Atlantic, "In Search of a Pope," was published in September 2004.

Ramsey Prather

You've written extensively about the Catholic Church and associated issues. What is it about this topic that draws you?

My own life as a Catholic was shaped in many ways by good writing. To some extent, that's the story of my book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which is a group portrait of four great Catholic writers, and that's what makes me try to deepen my experience of religious faith by writing about it. But my two articles for The Atlantic so far—this one, and an article from 2004 about the habits of thinking the cardinals would take into the conclave—come out of the fact that I had some experience of bishops when I was growing up. My father was a seminarian, training to be a priest in the late 1950s. His uncle, Robert Joyce, was the Catholic bishop of Vermont from the '50s through the '70s, and from time to time Bishop Joyce would come say Mass at our parish in upstate New York and then have Sunday dinner with us. My father took my brother and me to the installation ceremonies of two bishops who were friends of his in the seminary—Bishop Hubbard of Albany and Bishop Clark of Rochester, New York. So, due to my upbringing, I had some familiarity with bishops and respect for them, but also an awareness that a bishop is a man who is probably somebody's uncle and sometimes has Sunday dinner with relatives.

My grand-uncle was in Rome for months at a time during the '60s to take part in the Second Vatican Council, and it gave me a lot of pleasure, as I was going around Rome before the conclave, to know that he had been to these places and had done these things.

How is it that you were able to get such a full picture of what took place both before and after the conclave, given that you were just one of many thousands of journalists in Rome trying to cover the story?

I had a few advantages. The main one is the amount of time I was given to write the article. The Catholic Church moves slowly. Events at the Vatican unfold over months and years. But many journalists had to deliver stories on tight deadlines. I was free to look and listen and to follow other people's reports as they came out. After two short trips to Rome—one just after John Paul's death, the other just after Benedict's election—I had the good fortune of being able to return to Rome in June, with my family, and stay until the end of July. I was there for five or six weeks straight at a time when most journalists had already handed in their work—much of it very, very well informed, given the constraints they were under—and moved on. As far as I was concerned, the full story was just beginning to come out.

The main point I've tried to make with the article is that the passing of the papacy from one man to another has taken place over the past five years, and that Ratzinger, stepping in as John Paul faltered, was fully aware that doing so might turn him into a pope in the making. John Paul's pontificate lasted twenty-six years. Ratzinger was in Rome for twenty-two of them. After the conclave, one of the cardinal electors and I were talking about how surprised everybody was that Ratzinger got so good at being pope so soon. And this cardinal said, "Well, what do they expect? Of course, he's ripe. He's overripe! He's seventy-eight years old! If he's not ready now—when?"

The scope of this article is remarkable in that you were able to get key cardinals and curial officials at the Vatican to share their insights with you. How did you get such direct access to these people?

They were very gracious, and spent a lot of time with me for a number of reasons. Probably the most significant one is that, because of my book and my other work having to do with matters of faith, they know that I "speak Catholic," you might say. One cardinal told me that the 2004 Atlantic article, "In Search of a Pope," was being passed from one cardinal to another in the time before the conclave. This meant that not only did those cardinals agree to spend time with me, but we could quickly get down to business. Respect, intelligence, and a fluency in the Church's language and way of thinking are as important to people at the Vatican as are considerations like left or right, conservative or liberal. So the fact that I speak Catholic meant that they were willing to open up to me more than they might have otherwise.

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